Aseres Yemei Teshuvah.
The mere mention of these three potent words invariably strikes fear into the hearts and souls of God-fearing Jews everywhere. Each weekday morning, the piercing cry of the shofar penetrates our collective consciousness and urges us to mend our ways, repent our transgressions and return wholeheartedly to our Father in Heaven.
For me, all of the above ring true every year – without fail. However, there is inevitably another stark image that is conjured up as well whenever I hear those three awe-inspiring words. They take me back 30 years to a very pivotal and grueling 10-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, one that will no doubt remain ingrained in my memory forever.
Baruch Hashem, I had been happily married for a few years and was the mother of an adorable toddler. We were living in Eretz Yisrael and, despite the challenges of being thousands of miles from family and friends, we felt very blessed indeed. Our bechor was quite a handful, but charming and endearing at the same time. In short, all was well in the world.
Well, almost. Only one recurring concern marred our otherwise blissful existence and threatened to inject an insidious undercurrent of discontent into the perfect pattern of our daily lives: Despite our fervent desire for more children, our son remained an only child.
Following month after month and year after year of disappointment, my pregnancy test yielded a positive result at long last. We were going to be parents once again! Our joy knew no bounds. Alas, it was pitifully short-lived. Almost immediately after receiving the results, complications set in, and my OB/GYN decided that I had to be hospitalized in the interim so that my condition could be monitored on a daily basis.
That is how I ended up spending the solemn period of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, embarking on a life-altering journey – although I was physically ensconced in a hospital bed in the maternity ward of a Jerusalem hospital. In retrospect, it was definitely the “Ten Days of Teshuvah” that most epitomized the title and function of those holy days.
I was confined to bed for the entire time, allowed to rise only to shower and use the facilities. Other than during daily visits from my husband and son, and occasionally from other relatives, I spent virtually all my waking hours with a book in my hands – most often a siddur or Sefer Tehillim. And I davened with every fiber of my being, with tears rolling down my cheeks and genuine love and devotion in every word I uttered. Never before or since have I felt the awe and sanctity of those days in such a literal sense. It was an opportunity for the most exalted form of closeness and cleansing; I poured my entire neshamah into every word of every tefillah. And I felt Hashem’s presence so distinctly, a literal manifestation of “Shivisi Hashem l’negdi tamid.”
I have retained a few isolated, albeit crystal-clear, memories from those long-ago days. Most vivid among them was when our beloved aunt arrived one day wearing sunglasses to hide her unbridled emotions as she shared with me her own painful experiences from decades earlier. Then there was the anonymous roommate, experiencing her own pregnancy-related issues, who became a dear friend and confidante for decades after we bid farewell to those stark hospital corridors.
After the prescribed week and a half, it was all over. The 10 days had come to an end and almost immediately I was granted my reply. Sadly, it was not the response I was hoping for, not the reward I had envisioned. At the same time, I felt totally secure in the knowledge that this painful and unhappy outcome had come directly from the One Above. I knew that my tefillos and bakashos had been as sincere as humanly possible and had transformed me in the course of a mere week and a half to a better, more refined version of my previous self. I was likewise certain that it was not even remotely coincidental that my personal nisayon coincided precisely with the holiest days of the Jewish calendar.
While I was pained and disappointed that the child I dreamt for was no more, I exulted in the new improved me that had emerged as a result of my struggles. My arms remained achingly empty for now, but my heart and soul were full to overflowing with love and gratitude to my Creator and Judge.